Archive for Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows


Plus ça change

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On October 23, 1896, Frank L. Burns “secured” the first Henslow’s sparrow he had ever encountered in his home state of Pennsylvania.

henslow's sparrow, Fuertes

Burns didn’t shoot it. He didn’t net it or trap it. He didn’t even pick it up from under a plate glass window.

A large black and white cat was seen along the fence of a pasture field, with something in her mouth…. It proved to be an [adult Henslow’s sparrow] in excellent plumage, with the exception of the primaries and secondaries, which were scarcely three-fourths grown. This, together with its extreme fatness, rendered it an easy victim to tabby.

We know that Burns skinned the bird. The fate of the cat is less certain.

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Heermann’s Birds

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PUerto P, Sonora, January 24, 2007 126

One hundred fifty years ago today, Adolphus L. Heermann was killed, “having evidently stumbled and fallen,” when his collecting gun fired.

John Cassin, who knew him well, said of Heermann in earlier, healthier days that no better man could be had for a collecting expedition. In 1853, Cassin dedicated a “beautiful gull” to his friend, an

acknowledgment due to his accomplishment as a naturalist, and his perseverance and success as a scientific traveller.

In Washington, D.C., Spencer Baird was equally impressed by Heermann and his work in the field. On working through a collection of sparrows from the west, Baird encountered one that Heermann had sent from Tejon Pass, California, resembling a song sparrow but

differing very appreciably from a large number of specimens from Washington and Oregon…. I have come to the conclusion that the species is worthy of specific separation, and have accordingly named it Melospiza heermanni, after its accomplished collector and discoverer.

Today we “know” that that California bird is “just” a subspecies of the song sparrow. But there’s no reason not to call it the Heermann’s song sparrow, especially today.

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Pretty Faces

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We — or at least I — so often forget about Robert Ridgway as a painter, giving all our attention instead to his talented brother John.

Every time I have occasion or an excuse to use the Baird History, though, I’m struck anew by how sensitive and appealing the plates are that Robert Ridgway painted for the book (some of them under vigorous protest, as Dan Lewis informs us).

Ridgway Baird History Plate 25

Aren’t they lovely?


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Dialogue in the Drawers

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Screenshot 2015-09-05 14.30.16

If you’re not already crazy, thinking hard about Passerculus sparrows will drive you there fast.


The only consolation: greater spirits than ours have been confused by these streaky devils.

Robert Ridgway corrected the labels of the co-types of the San Benito sparrow to read “P. guttatus Lawr.!”

I assume it was the explanation point that rankled. In any event, not long thereafter, Elliott Coues corrected his corrector, adding beneath Ridgway’s notation the words “Scarcely! stet sanctorum–C.”

I don’t know whether the two actually ever sat down to talk about those skins. But each had made his point, loud and clear.


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Smelly Sparrows

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One of my favorite lines in the history of American ornithology comes from J.P. Giraud‘s description of one of my favorite birds, the Henslow’s sparrow.

Henslow sparrow, Robert Ridgway

Shotgun birders like Giraud found this species no less maddeningly elusive than today’s observers. Happily, though, writes Giraud,

from the eagerness with which it is pursued by dogs, we may infer that it possesses considerable game effluvia.

As late as the 1970s, it seems, hunters in Louisiana were complaining that their dogs were pointing these grassland “stinkbirds” instead of quail.

Gellert, you have a mission.

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